I started working on poems by Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich in late 2009 on a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, for which opportunity I gratefully acknowledge the Hawthornden Trust, and the help of Graham Fawcett and the Stephen Spender Foundation in putting my name forward. While I was there, I wanted to revive my Russian and work on some poets I did not previously know, and I became aware of Khodasevich thanks to Michael Wachtel's book The Development of Russian Verse: Meter and its Meanings (Cambridge, 1998). In particular the poem "Daktili" (see Wachtel p.201-04) struck me, with its focus on the father-son relationship remarkably in tune with the more recent Anglophone category of "confessional" poem, while the unrhymed but intensely musical verse was asking for an attempt at an English version, and offered the excitement of following the carefully-worked rhythm without the additional factor of rhyme. My version, "The Dactyls", is being published this year in Poetry Review (London); four other poems are in the May-June 2010 issue of PN Review (Manchester). The ones published here are mostly from the second stage of my work on Khodasevich, back in London.
Instead of working at a range of poets from anthologies, I soon concentrated on Khodasevich, not only because of the quality of the poems but because I found him personally sympathetic, in his sensibility, both deeply passionate and deeply sceptical, and his absolute dedication to poetry. Coming after Blok a little too late to be part of Symbolism, he had to find his own approach to reflecting the world in poems. He also had to come to terms with exile from Russia in 1922, just when he had reached a truly individual mature style. His absence from the Soviet Union and the dead-end nature of the émigré literary world left him, even with the advocacy of Nabokov, without a significant readership, and Russia has now only had about twenty years to get to know him. It is fortunate that Nina Berberova, his partner in Parisian exile, evidently nurtured his reputation when eventually she came to teach at Princeton. As this is where Michael Wachtel teaches, there is a tenuous but identifiable trail via Paris, New Jersey and Scotland that has brought me the challenge of translating him for English-speakers, and I hope I am doing him justice. I do still need help with Russian idioms and resonances, for which I must thank the various Russians and Russian-speakers who have helped me so far, and no doubt others in future. For information about his life and work, David Bethea's book Khodasevich: His Life and Art (Princeton, 1983) has been indispensable.
For an English poet, one attraction is his use of blank verse, in seven poems of his mature period. Bringing across the musicality of his rhyming verse, like any rhyme for translation, has all the "fascination of what's difficult" as Yeats put it, but it is a real gift to have great poems already using our own distinctive verse-form. Michael Wachtel draws attention to the connection with Pushkin's blank verse poem "Again I visited…", which has clear echoes in "The House". Khodasevich has a predilection for vertiginously shifting perspectives between the immediate banal detail and the vastness of the universe and eternity, and he does this in both "The House" and "The Music".
Some of the rhyming poems I have felt able to translate unrhymed, but paying attention to the sound-patterns enough to give an English reader a sense of shape. There are of course losses - Wachtel (p.250) shows the importance of the intricate rhyming in "God Alive!", which I have had to ignore; also in this poem I tackled the dilemma of translating the culturally loaded word "zaumny" (highly significant to Futurism) in as many different ways as I could for each instance, to cover the range of meanings: without explanation, readers of the English will miss the full significance of Khodasevich's point unless they are familiar with Russian poetic movements, but I hope something survives. I have also used the ruse of variation rather than repetition (with Peter Daniels's encouragement) in "Step over…", where the prefix "pere-" occurs four times in the first two lines.
Occasionally the sound-patterning of my versions moves from half-rhyme into full rhyme, as in "The Swallows". In "April" where the original rhymes AbbA, I have rhymed the even lines, which loses that strange cadence of an enclosed rhyme scheme as found in Tennyson's In Memoriam, but I hope is a reasonable substitute. This pattern has served for most of my rhyming versions: one rhyme per quatrain feels like a "good enough" solution when I felt nothing but rhyming would do. Of these, "Not My Mother…" has been the most difficult of all, even more than two others (published in PN Review), "The Stars" and "Ballad of the Heavy Lyre". Those were completed quickly while undisturbed at Hawthornden, and brought their own drive from the comic and numinous subject matter. "Not My Mother…" is maybe not Khodasevich's most successful poem but it carries a weight of personal feeling; it also brings some problems about what to do with specific references. I have made the "viazemski" gingerbread (from the town of Viaz'ma) a descriptive "fruity" one, thanks to Bethea's note on it (p. 218). There has been some conflicting information about whether a "grosh" was half a kopek or two kopeks, but I have gone for "half" because I wanted a smoother rhythm there than the inverted foot that "two" would give me - although that would serve, if a definitive ruling on "grosh" as two kopeks is available. The "trampled coronation crowd" is the best I can offer for the disaster at Khodynka, where over a thousand were killed in pandemonium during distribution of presents for Nicholas II's coronation: this probably needs a footnote for most readers, but I would always rather put the most useful information (the coronation) into the poem, rather than the name of the place. This loses the specificity of reference which, as Irina Mashinski has pointed out to me, is important to Khodasevich's post-symbolist method: but as with all these translator's negotiations and compromises, I hope at least the result is a readable poem that does him justice.